Just days after publicly criticizing the leaders of Great Britain, Germany, and NATO, and casting America’s European allies as a “foe,” President Donald Trump repeatedly leapt to the defense of Russian President Vladimir Putin in a remarkable joint press conference in Helsinki.
Pressed repeatedly on the topic of whether Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election, Trump expressed doubt about the conclusions of American intelligence agencies and suggested that he put more stock in Putin’s denials. After lacerating European leaders on trade, Trump in his appearance with Putin noticeably dodged contentious issues such as Russia’s annexation of Crimea and military involvement in Syria.
But what are the lasting implications for America’s alliances? Did Trump’s trip to Europe remake American foreign policy, with Europe as foes and Russia as an ally?
We spoke with Northeastern political science professor Mai’a Cross, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and an expert in European politics, on how the Trump-Putin summit is likely to play out after the furor of the press conference subsides.
What was your overall reaction to the summit between presidents Trump and Putin?
As a European scholar, I was looking at this as dual summits—Europe then Russia one after the other—and the overall picture was very disturbing. He has met with European leaders several times and continues his bashing of everything the Europeans stand for, showing complete disregard for the transatlantic relationship. Then he meets with an authoritarian leader who doesn’t share any of these values and praises this authoritarian leader, handing him kudos for things that he should be criticized for.
What did this look like from the perspective of our European allies?
From day one when Trump was elected they were very concerned about this American leader, and it just gets worse with each passing month. From their perspective, it’s horrifying to see a U.S. president toy around with the all-important transatlantic relationship and then meet with a country that is a threat to Europe and actively aggressive against the United States. For them, Trump’s actions are playing with fire, threatening the liberal world order.
How do they view the long-term effect of Trump’s actions?
I don’t think the Europeans are completely alarmist about this, because they also see the Trump presidency as a temporary thing. If they can just weather the storm and move on to the next president, the transatlantic alliance will be fine. So far, they’re willing to wait it out.
Despite the disruption of this president, they know the day-to-day reality of U.S. relations is still pretty firm. So I think for them, it’s not an apocalypse yet. They have a built-in patience with the United States. But it’s not infinite.
Trump agreed to meet with Putin for two hours with no one else present except the interpreters. Is that typical?
There is typically at least one other note-taker in the room keeping track of what was being said. Just like Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong-Un, we can’t really know what was said or agreed to between the two leaders, because there was no note-taker in the room. That is highly unusual. And then when you consider that Trump doesn’t really prepare for these meetings, it’s concerning how he might have been manipulated and what he conceded. We just don’t know.
What was your reaction to Trump’s comments about Russian meddling in the 2016 election?
It’s completely baffling and I think the foreign policy community in the United States was alarmed by that entire press conference. Trump clearly turned away from his own intelligence community, which is unanimous on the fact that Russia was involved in trying to interfere in the U.S. elections. And he wouldn’t say anything about it.
Reporters repeatedly asked Trump questions that gave him the opportunity to bring up a variety of issues between the U.S. and Russia, and he avoided the opportunity. This is where I place this in the context of the meeting with European leaders because he certainly had no problem holding the European leaders’ feet to the fire. Yet when he was standing right there next to Putin, he refused to demand that he stop meddling in our elections. So overall he appeared very weak.
Putin, as a former intelligence officer with so much experience, was able to easily manipulate Trump and the press conference.
Beyond the optics and theatrics, are there any practical ramifications for what transpired in these two summits?
I think that diplomacy matters and Trump is having an effect on the quality and texture of alliances. You see some pretty strong moves in Europe. One response to the threat of Trump is the beginning of a European defense union, which will operate independent of NATO. That’s a good thing, but you don’t want it to happen at the expense of the transatlantic alliance. It’s the U.S. and Europe together that create a strong international order that encourages countries to embrace democracy and human rights and develop sustainable environmental policy.
In addition, I think that most of Trump’s performance at the summit emboldens Russia. They will probably interpret this as a green light to continue all that they have been doing—cyber warfare, election meddling, and stirring up more conflict in Syria—without punishment from the United States.
Who benefited most from this summit?
There were few specifics that came out of this, so the main winners are Russia and Putin. The kind of visibility that Putin gained from a high level summit directly with the president of the United States is a huge bonus for both him and his country. This parallels the U.S.-North Korea summit where Kim Jong-Un gained a lot of visibility and was able to augment power from the interaction.